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Shireen Lewis, SisterMentors

Dr. Shireen Lewis sitting on a yoga mat during a yoga class

Lexey Swall

Small Seed Grows to Great Tree of Support

Contrary to common assumptions, innovation is seldom born of an idea fleshed out and crystallized from Day One. Oftentimes, ideas start small, and then they take on a life of their own, expanding in scope far beyond what the conceptualizer ever dreamed. It’s a matter of someone with the right intentions acting on a small impulse coming from deep inside.

That was the case with Shireen Lewis and her gem of a concept. One day as a doctorate student studying French Literature, Lewis realized something was missing from her experience. It hit her all at once.

“I got up from bed one morning and decided that I needed a community of women of color to support me during my pursuit of my doctorate,” she says, recollecting the moment.

Surely others like her felt the same desire for like-minded support, so in starting a group that would meet an innate need of hers, maybe she could help a few other people as well. Thus, Lewis, who grew up in a small village in Trinidad and Tobago, set out to create her community. It didn’t take long to find a few people to help seed the idea, and before she knew it, Lewis had formed a group of students who could provide support for one another.

End of story? Hardly. The group kept growing—but that still wasn’t the end of it.

Members realized how nourishing the group was to them and how important it was to improving their well-being. They also saw a much greater need beyond the boundaries of a college concept. Inspired by their own experience and harnessing the energy generated by the group, they decided they wanted to pay it forward. Members started connecting with younger students to offer support. That eventually led to the founding of Washington, D.C.-based SisterMentors, which provides support for students ranging from young girls to older women going back to school.

Today girls can begin with SisterMentors—a program with origins in a graduate-student group on a university campus—as young as first grade. And at the other end of the age-diversity spectrum, women in their 60s, themselves defying age stereotypes by pursuing doctorates, at the same time are reaching back to mentor middle school and high school girls.

The result is a dynamic circle of empowerment—all started with one woman acting on an idea and allowing it to blossom.

“It is the deep hope that I have in my heart that fuels the work I am doing and have done with SisterMentors for close to 20 years,” says Lewis, who cites a school-teacher mentor in her village when she was only eight years-old as both a key to her future success as well as an inspiration for the SisterMentors concept.

With this hope and drive, SisterMentors will soon enter their third decade in growth mode. They’re seeking to expand location sites within the District so that they can reach out and work with even more girls and women of color who are daring to dream of higher learning—and realizing those dreams.

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